WJT Mitchell–Iconology: Image, Text, and Ideology

In Iconology, Mitchell explores the ways in which the idea of imagery in relation to notions of picturing, imagining, perceiving, resembling, and imitating is discussed in various discourses in attempt to discover what an image is and what the difference is between word and image.  Mitchell, in other words, explores the rhetoric of imagery, otherwise known as iconology, the “logos” (words, ideas, discourse) of icons (images, pictures, or likeness)—a tradition that essentially studys what images say (by persuading, telling, describing, etc) (1).   His proclaims rhetorical purpose is “to show how the notion of imagery serves as a kind of relay connecting theories of art, language, and the mind with conceptions of social, cultural, and political value” (2).  What he uncovers through an exploration of various theories forwarded by Gombrich, Goodman, and Burke) is that iconology is also a study of the “political psychologicy of icons, the study of iconophobia, iconophilia, and the struggle between iconoclams and idolatry” (3).  As such, Mitchell uncovers how “the notion of ideology is rooted in the concept of imagery, and reenacts the ancient struggles of iconoclasm, idolatry, and fetishism” (4). 


In Part 1, Mitchell explores what an image is.  By tracing how images were discussed and perceived through various historical eras, he explains that unlike the  era when images were thought to be transparent windows to reality, in modernity, the image is perceived to be a sign that is deceitful, distorting kind of representation.  He explores the “language games” (Wittgenstein) that play with notion of images and the historical forms that sustain those games by examining they ways in which image is employed in various institutionalized discoures—literary criticism, art history, theology, and philosophy—which all borrow notions of imagery from each other (9).  In effect, Mitchell deduces that “images are like an actor on the historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves about own evolution from creatures “made in the image” of a creator, to creatures who makes themselves and their world in their own image” (9). 


Mitchell also gives special emphasis to the relations or dialectic between word and image.  As he notes, “the relationship between words and images reflects, within the realm of representation, signification, and communication, the relations we posit between symbols and the world, signs and their meanings (43).  The distinction between word and images, Mitchell argues, is a “struggle that carries the fundamental contradictions of our culture into the heart of theoretical discourse itself” (44). Our goal should be an investigation into what interests and whose powers are served by this struggle and what “nature already informs both sides of the conversation” (44 and 46). 


In Part II, Mitchell defines this struggle between word and image as a  ‘“war of signs” in which the stakes are things like nature, truth, reality, and the human spirit” (47).  As he explains, “Each art, each type of sign or medium, lays claim to certain things tha tit is best equipped to mediate, and each grouns its claim in a certain characteristization of its “self,” its own proper essence.  Equally important, each art characterizes itself in opposition to its “significant other” (47).   Mitchell uncovers two rhetorical strategies at work in discourse surrounding image and word:  wit (tracing assemblages) and judgment (finding differences) (48).  The war between image and word is reflective in the longlasting distinction between poetry and painting, of which Mitchell argues there is no essential difference only a difference “in effect in a culture which allow it to sort out the distinctive qualities of its ensemble of signs and symbols” (49).  Again, what is really at struggle in culture is a struggle between body and soul, world and mind, and nature and culture (49).  Also, the poetry and painting distinction resonates in subsequent debates of sign and symbol, symbol and icon, metonymy and metaphor, signifier and signified (50).  Employing the methodologies of critical analysis and historical contextualism, he  traces and analyzes the discourse of Goodman, Gombrich, Lessing, and Burke, which reflect the boundaries between disciplines of this image/text struggle.


By analyzing Goodmans’s system of symbols, Mitchell shows that the differences between image and word are matters of use, habit and convention, and authorial stipulation—namely, choice, need, and interest (70).  Through an investigation of these choices, needs, and interests, we can deduce whose interests and values are being served in making distinctions between image and word.  


Mitchell also traces the battle between image and word back to the battle between nature and convention that began perhaps with Plato’s Cratylus, in which image and words was in labeling battle between nature and convention and in which relative battles over power of signs was taken up.  In other terms, the battle between image and word is also age old battle between nature and culture, which when this debate ensues deems images as superior to word or vice versa.  Images are inferior when deemed as belonging to “lower regions of brute necessity, inarticulate object, and irrationality” and convey universal inferior sets of information communicatable by savages, animals, etc. On the other hand, images are deemed superior when deemed as being capable of communicating universality, truth, and etc.  In Gombrich’s theory, images are deemed more natural for the most part, but as Mitchell demonstrates, this theory of the image is grounded in a particular historical formation, “as ideology associated with the rise of modern science and the emergence of capitalist economies in Western Europe in the last four hundred years” (90).  Mitchell concludes this chapter by reiterating that we must begin to envision that the image is a means of dialogue within the world of convention that leads us to its limits” (94).


Mitchell also demonstrates how the image/word battle is a historical formation stemming from distinction between time and  atemporal space, which again is nothing short of a “dialectical struggle in which opposing terms take on different ideological roles and relationships at different moments of history” (98).  In reality, Mitchell claims arts are spatial-temporal constructions, which we need to consider rather than reifying the binary between spatial or temporal (103).  Mitchell wants us to see that in essence, this is a battle between genres, which are artificial, man-made structures the laws of which are “matters of the political economy, directly related to conceptions of civil society, and beyond that to a picture of stable international relations” (105).  He wants us to recognize the ideological battle at work which begins with realizing that “genres are not technical definitions but acts of exclusion and appropriation which tend to reify some “significant other.” The “kind” and its “nature” is inevitably grounded in a contrast with an “unkind” and its propesensity for “unnatural” behavior” (112).  In analyzing Lessings’ theories, Mitchell uncovers a fear of imagery in Lessings work, as if Lessing deems images as idols. 


 By investigating the work of Edmund Burke, Mitchell traces the discursive distinctions between image and word that stem from distinctions made relating to the senses, ie. visual and aural.  “As with time and space, nature and convention, the tendency,” Mitchell explains, “is to think of the visual/aural structure of symbols as a natural division, one which dictates certain necessary limits to what can (or ought) to be expressed by those symbols” (119).  He claims that “against this reified ‘nature’ we must set the historicity of the body and the senses, the intuition that ‘vision’ has a history, and that our ideas of what vision is, what is worth looking at, and why, are all deeply embedded in social and cultural history. Eye and ear…are categories of power and value, ways of enlisting nature in our causes and crusades” (119). 


In Part III, Mitchell builds of the theme establish in part II, in which all four figures deemed the image with special powers or in other words as an idol or fetish.  Burke and Lessing have iconophobia which deems images as powerless, mute and inferior signs because of fear that others who believe in power of image of gaining power themselves.  Gombrich’s attitude toward images, on the other hand, is iconophlic:  images are magical (151).   Mitchell claims that we need to a.)  further investigate other theorists, critics, or aestheticians “who have tried to legislate the boundaries between the arts, and especially the war-torn border between image and text” and b.) study those artistic practices which relate to war of signs (154).  This study is necessary to understand “anything like the full complexity of either verbal or visual art, most of which are transgression of the text-image boundary (155).  He encourages an ideological anlysis to iconological problems to help us better understand relation between word and text (157).  The principal goal of iconology, he argues, is to “restore” the provocative, dialogic power of images which reflect on the nature of images (159).  He encourages us to also scrutinize, as he does in this text, the “political unconscious” that informs our understanding of imagery and its difference from language and could very well be bases in a general fear of imagery (159). 


In his final chapter, “The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm,” Mitchell models a means of analyzing concepts, one which retraces the steps from the abstracts concept back to its concrete origin” (160).  Mitchell models this method by tracing how Marx makes the concrete concepts of ideology and commodity into metaphors in his rhetoric of iconoclasm.  He claims that ideology in Marx’s rhetoric actually became a form of idoltry or ideolatry (167).  Mitchell insists that we must see concrete concepts as historically situated figures that carry a political unconscious with them (204).  He makes room to identify the perception of cultural objects as mere representations as a form of iconoclasm.  We must see the polyvalent essence of the dialectical image:  “as object in a world, as representation, as analytic tool, as rhetorical device, as figure” (205).”  We must, in other words, understand the ideology that informs our own perceptions toward image and text. 




Questions Addresssed:


What is the relationship between image and text?  How can we define image?  What methods are useful in tracing rhetoric of iconoclasm at work in our field?  How might ideological analysis of concrete terms in our field be productive for our understanding of rhetoric itself? 


Key concepts:


Image:  family which has mitigated in time and space and undergone profound mutations in the process (9).  Different disciplines consider images (likeness, resemblance, similitude) differently as either graphic, optical, perceptual, mental, and verbal.


Idols:  an image which has an unwarranted, irrational power over somebody, an object of worship, a repository of powers which someone has projected onto it, but which it in fact does not possess; overvalued images by an Other. 


Iconoclasm:  assumption that power of the image is felt by somebody else; vision of emptiness, vanity, and impropriety of the idol.  The rhetoric of iconoclasm is rhetoric of exclusion and domination, a caricature of the other as one who is involved in irrational, obscene behavior from which we are exempt (113). 


Totems:  companionable forms (Coleridge phrase) which the viewer may converse with, cajole, bully, or cast aside (114)


Critical iconoclasts:  those who want to discriminate the vain, obscene idols of the mind or the marketplace from those images that are worthy of being called friends and companions (115). 


Key Quotes:


Reason, scientific accuracy, and rhetorical power are traditionally attached to words (121). 


Verbal imagery has power to trace resemblances (127).  



Filed under visual rhetorics exam

3 responses to “WJT Mitchell–Iconology: Image, Text, and Ideology

  1. Rose

    Why did Lessing want to keep word and image separate?

  2. Jannat

    Can you give me an example that dramatizes the difference between images and words?

  3. Pingback: Visual Culture Model | najiha08

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